Nope, don’t even try pretending you don’t recognise that little yellow rodent.
More than just some kids’ game, the Pokémon franchise – comprising the original video games, as well as anime, manga, trading cards, toys, and other media – has overcome scoffing, controversy, and an ageing fanbase to sell over 215 million copies of the game as of last year, making it the world’s second most popular (and lucrative) video game-based franchise.
Now into its 15th year, it’s still going strong – and even experiencing a mini-renaissance, thanks to the March release of the 5th generation of games, Pokémon Black and White Versions.
It’s due to the popularity of these games that formed the basis of the Video Game Elite 4 Tournament Competition (VGC), organised by local group of dedicated Pokémon enthusiasts Team Robo, in conjunction with Play! Pokémon and held at West Mall from Jun 13 to 19. Due to radical new changes to the game’s rules, however, the corresponding Black & White expansion of the Trading Card Game (TCG) was not used in the TCG National Championships, which also took place on Jun 18 and 19 (Saturday and Sunday).
The First Day (Jun 18)
Qualifiers for the VGC were conducted from Jun 13 to 17, with the top 5 players of each day advancing to the finals on Sunday. But for TCG players, Saturday was their chance to prove they had what it took to claim the title of National Champion – and an all-expenses-paid trip to San Diego, California to participate in this year’s World Championships on Aug 13.
Over 4 hours, 84 contenders in the Masters division (aged 16 and above) fought it out in 7 rounds of Swiss qualifiers to determine the top 16, who would go on to compete in single elimination matches on Sunday.
With far more participants than the cramped competition area could accommodate, some resorted to sitting on the floor or at nearby eateries to hold their matches.
On the growth of the player base, Adrian Foo, head judge at the event, commented, “Last year, the total was about a hundred, but this year, in the Masters division alone, we’ve already hit that number.”
As the day progressed, onlookers ranging from youths to small children and even elderly people gathered around the competition area for a look at the action, usually leaving after a round or two looking slightly bemused.
Some youths, like Sarah Teo, an 18-year-old polytechnic student, were casual fans surprised by how seriously some people took the game.
“Wow, I didn’t know they had competitions and everything,” she said, with a laugh.
On the other hand, Samuel Chan, an NSF, was no stranger to the realm of competitive play, having actively participated in the past.
“Now, I just don’t have the time. It changes so fast and now I don’t even recognise some of these Pokémon,” he said.
Even veterans are quick to agree, explaining that the World Championships format changes every year to match the latest TCG expansion series or video game version, and a new arena of archetypes and common tactics, known as the metagame, have to be developed.
For example, out of the 649 different Pokémon characters, only 149 from Pokémon White and Black Versions are eligible this year.
But building an entire team from scratch is no trouble for old hands like Matthew Hui, a 20-year-old university student, who started planning his Pokémon line-up and strategies when he first heard about the competition, roughly 2 weeks before it was scheduled to take place.
“It’s a matter of a few days, if you know what you’re doing,” he said confidently.
Yep – as with most other sports, the pros just make it look oh-so-simple.
The 2nd Day (Jun 19)
Clearly, this was going to be a big day.
The Juniors (aged 10 and under) and Seniors (aged 11-15) divisions of the TCG competition wrapped up by mid-afternoon, with the Masters division finals scheduled to run at the same time as the VGC finals later in the day.
By late afternoon, the 16 VGC players who’d made it through the previous 5 days of qualifiers had fully assembled. After drawing lots to determine their match-ups, they headed to their assigned seats and the first single elimination round of the tournament began.
Winners of first round would be known as Gym Leaders, after the group of powerful Trainers, each specialising in a different Pokémon types, found in the video games.
Follow that up with another victory, and from then on they would be recognised as members of the Elite Four, an even more exclusive band of the most adept experts at Pokémon battles.
Of course, that alone wasn’t enough for Sunday’s hopefuls. Tension was high as the competitors fought to claim the highest honour – the title of Singapore’s Pokémon Champion.
Towards the evening, the tournament headed into its concluding round, where the ultimate winner would be decided by the best of two matches. Facing each other in the finals were fan favourite Shawn Tang and Matthew Hui, who was competing in a local tournament for the first time.
A crowd gathered near the competition area to watch the battle streamed live on the big screen, with many taking photos and even recording the match with their cameras and mobile phones. Soon provided a running commentary, and vigorous discussion and applause from the audience helped to both clue in and freak out curious passers-by.
Matthew prevailed in the first game, leaving Shawn crouched over his DS Lite trying to come up with a strategy to turn the tables in his favour during the second match. Again, it was an extremely close fight, but good prediction and effective team combinations eventually secured a win for Matthew.
Amid cheers from the spectators, the finalists shook hands and congratulated each other for a great battle.
Talking about how he managed to emerge victorious, Matthew said, “He was always the biggest threat. I planned specifically for him, for his strategies.”
As a testament to his dedication, he’s certainly earned his spoils of war: a medal, a Nintendo 3DS system, and a Pikachu World Collection box containing various trading cards featuring the series’ famous mascot.
In the TCG National Championships, Clifton Goh triumphed over his opponent in the Masters division to clinch first place, netting himself a medal, 36 TCG booster packs and, finally, the much-coveted invitation to the World Championships.
The winners were announced shortly after the tournament’s conclusion.
Pokémon Black & White Video Game Elite 4 Tournament Competition Results
|Runner-up||Tang Wenjie Shawn|
Pokémon TCG National Championship SG 2011 Results
For the winners of the TCG Championships, their saga doesn’t end here – they’ll be flying to San Diego to represent Singapore in the World Championships on Aug 13. For everyone else, there’s always next year, with all the surprises and new strategies it might bring.
As its extremely loyal fanbase, who’ve stood by the franchise through its inevitable ups and downs, continues to grow and expand, the next few years seem set to be some of its best yet.
These insidiously endearing little creatures aren’t going to get knocked out anytime soon.